Editor's Note: George Boyd Jr. is the vice president of Goldens’ Foundry and Machine Company and a CPA member.
They’re sold out everywhere. How complicated could it be to just make some more? Turns out, very.
[ Alex Shultz | April 7, 2020 | GQ]
It didn’t happen exactly this way, but it feels like it did: one day we were all hearing about the coronavirus. The next day, we were all murmuring the phrase “social distancing.” And then the day after that, the kettlebells disappeared. All of them. Ryan McGrotty, co-owner of Colorado gym equipment retailer Rep Fitness, says he’s never seen a rush on his home gym inventory quite like what transpired on Friday, March 13, the day President Trump declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep Fitness did more sales in one day than it normally does in a month. Already it had been dealing with low inventory levels across its home gym lineup because the virus had temporarily shuttered factories in China. When the spike came, the whole system fell apart. Since then, the 55-person company has largely been reorganized to turn away from professional gym gear and focus only on home exercise products. “The demand almost seems infinite,” McGrotty says.
Rep Fitness isn’t the only company in its field that’s been overwhelmed with orders, as you’ve realized if you’ve tried to order weights from anywhere online. The kettlebell is the most obvious flashpoint of our great weight shortage. They're appealingly simple—just a hunk of iron with a handle, and useful for working out your entire body. But kettlebells are part of a complicated and fragile supply chain, one that's a microcosm of a global economy currently in crisis.
On April 2, Rogue Fitness, a U.S. manufacturer and retailer of strength and conditioning gear, posted pictures on Instagram of kettlebells being manufactured. Rogue, which did not respond to an interview request for this story, captioned the post to its two million followers with: “We know we are behind and we are working around the clock to clear the backlog."
Rogue prides itself on manufacturing and selling American-made goods, but the company's kettlebells are normally manufactured overseas. Most of the kettlebells that you could have ordered before March 13 were; it's probably not surprising that, in 2020, there are few American foundries eagerly pumping out large bulbs of iron. But Rogue, in a moment of massive demand and with a supply chain in chaos, has turned to Rhode Island's Cumberland Foundry, a company with roughly 40 employees. Those Instagram pictures it posted were from Cumberland, a tacit acknowledgment that, at least temporarily, the system has shifted: Rogue needs professionally crafted kettlebells wherever it can get them, even if it has to pay higher, American-sized wholesale prices than what they and other companies (including Rep Fitness) are getting overseas.
The irony is that Cumberland Foundry doesn't really want to be in the kettlebell business. Cumberland isn’t automated, and its president, Tom Lucchetti, estimates that it takes a full day to produce 40 to 50 kettlebells (with Rogue handling last steps, like painting the bells). Rogue typically buys internationally-produced kettlebells by the shipping container. “I’ve been clear with them from the start that isn’t something we can keep up with,” Lucchetti says.
Besides, Lucchetti has no illusions about the current, likely fleeting situation. Foundries in America have, since the '80s, been decimated by globalization. “We’re a country that off-shored most of our heavy industry and manufacturing, and now look at what that’s caused,” he says. “We can’t even make paper masks. I just saw the news report that the [New England] Patriots sent a plane to get a million paper masks from China. It’s pathetic that our manufacturing in America is where it is.”
They look simple, but kettlebells require a complicated, involved production process. Cumberland is only here because it lucked into the kettlebell business more than a decade ago—shortly before the recession of 2008, which saw its own kettlebell shortage. Back then, the owner of a Rhode Island gym was ordering products from exercise gear conglomerates, which have their kettlebells made overseas. The gym had issues with the durability of those kettlebells—their two-piece designs had a steel handle that would often come loose, which is disconcerting when you’re holding 40 pounds of iron over your head.
"“These huge companies are turning to a little mom and pop-type shop like us to get this product made because there’s no one else left in the U.S. who can do it.”
A one-piece cast-iron kettlebell design emerged as the clear alternative model, and the gym owner enlisted nearby Cumberland to make it. The gym owner prototyped his kettlebells, then gave Cumberland the tooling—which would have cost $50,000 to $100,000 to create—so it could manufacturer his final cast-iron product. Around the same time, the recession of 2008 hit. Cumberland whittled down to 17 employees and was in serious peril. Kettlebells were a lifeline. “There’s so much iron in one mold, we could mold only kettlebells and keep our furnace running,” Lucchetti says. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without kettlebells. Now we’re in a different crisis, something that could significantly impact us, and here we are again with a big demand for kettlebells.”
Around 2010, Lucchetti says, the gym owner started selling his one-piece kettlebell to Rogue. Rogue, in turn, quickly figured out it could instead mass-produce its own kettlebell design. Cumberland helped Rogue prototype that design—then Rogue took that design overseas to be manufactured, a fate Cumberland anticipated. Over the ensuing decade, kettlebells have mostly served as a speciality item for Cumberland. (The foundry does most of its business making machine parts.) Until, of course, right now, with demand skyrocketing, and supply chains short-circuiting.
“These huge companies are turning to a little mom and pop-type shop like us to get this product made because there’s no one else left in the U.S. who can do it,” Lucchetti says. “At this time, it seems mutually beneficial to make the kettlebells, but it’s not something we’re looking to base our business on moving forward.”
It isn’t entirely true that there aren’t more American foundries capable of melding kettlebells. In Georgia, George Boyd Jr. is the vice president of Goldens’ Foundry and Machine Company, one of the largest foundries left in the U.S. Goldens’ makes long-haul truck parts, in addition to commercial items like cast-iron grills, which Boyd says are “selling like hot cakes” right now. Goldens’ dabbled with limited runs of dumbbells once upon a time, but stayed out of the kettlebell business out of respect to their foundry friends up north. “To be candid, we didn’t want to step on the toes of Cumberland,” Boyd says. “They’ve got a smaller foundry and we understood that for a while at least, they had a good thing going with kettlebells.”
Goldens’ dumbbell experiment didn’t last, and Boyd is hesitant to take on fitness equipment-related projects without a commitment from the companies involved that they wouldn’t bolt back to China when the pandemic subsides. “A lot of large American buyers say they care about everything, but at the end of the day, all they want to know is piece price,” Boyd says. “They certainly do have great foundries in China, but the reality is, the bulk of their production is not done by people who are paid living wages, and the work isn’t always done in environmentally friendly ways.”
“A lot of large American buyers say they care about everything, but at the end of the day, all they want to know is piece price.”
Boyd raises a key point—while American foundries are largely unable to take advantage of one of the few industries seeing a sales boom at the onset of a possible depression, Chinese foundry workers are often overworked, underpaid, and exposed to hazardous conditions.
Boyd hopes the sold-out kettlebell saga will open consumer’s eyes about the dismal state of manufacturing, amongst many other industries, in the U.S. and around the world. “With these massive disruptions, I hope more people are thinking about, well, do we really want to have a logistical supply chain that stretches over half the globe?” he says. “People forget the reality of this when they go to Wal-Mart to buy some kettlebells. We’re all guilty of it.”
All of which is to say: It might take you a while to find a kettlebell. Exercise some patience. The workers of the world are a little busy, and unfortunately, significant American-made reinforcements don’t appear to be on the way.
UPDATE: This piece originally misstated the number of kettlebells that Cumberland Foundry can produce in a single day. That number has been corrected."
Read the original article here.